Minister Decries Early Release for Crack Charges
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR news.
We're going to continue a conversation we started a couple of weeks ago about new federal sentencing guidelines that are allowing some drug offenders to go home early. Last fall, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced the possible sentences for first-time, non-violent offenders, who've been convicted of selling crack cocaine. They also decided to make the change retroactive.
The move has been pushed for years by advocates because the sentences for selling crack far outweigh those for selling equal amounts of powder cocaine and because that imbalance meant that black, and to a lesser extent, Latino offenders, were being sentenced to much longer jail terms than whites for selling equal amounts of drugs. Two weeks ago we spoke to Natasha Marshall who had just been released three years early, because of the new guidelines.
Ms. NATASHA MARSHALL: I was ecstatic. I was just overjoyed. I was like, oh my God, now this nightmare is finally going to come to an end sooner than what they said. My heart kind of skipped a beat, and I was like, wow. This is it. It's really happening.
MARTIN: But not everyone is pleased with this sentence reduction, among them, Wade Ikard. He is a minister and the coordinator of the Weed and Seed. It's a Department of Justice sponsored community program aimed at fighting drug use. He is in South Statesville, North Carolina, and he joins us now. Reverend Ikard, thank you so much for talking to us now.
Reverend WADE IKARD (Coordinator, Weed and Seed): Hello, how are you?
MARTIN: I'm good. Now, you testified before the Sentencing Commission when they were considering this step, and you offered some very vivid testimony about the way you feel your community has been destroyed by crack cocaine. If you could just tell us a little bit about what you told the commission about the affect that crack had had on the community? You talked about the fact that 20 years ago, the place where you lived, was a very different place. What were some of the changes you saw as a result of crack?
Reverend IKARD: As a result of crack in our community, we have seen major changes in South Statesville. I mean, South Statesville was a very vibrant community, and now - we can consider it now, as some people would say, a ghetto. The community has lost - a lot of its businesses have gone. The crime rate has just sky rocketed. The gangs are so territorial now that we have constantly murders and robberies. The high school - the dropouts in school now has just increased tremendously because, once again, crack been poor man's drug, as they say it is.
It's a quick way to make money. So now, why work? We can sell crack and be just as wealthy and well off as any other people. It has really just deteriorated the community greatly.
MARTIN: Well, what about those who argue - that look, under the previous sentencing guidelines, an offender who would need a hundred times the amount of powder cocaine to get the same sentence that an offender would get for any amount of crack cocaine. Do you see what I am saying? If you had, you know, five ounces of crack, you'd need a hundred times that of powder. And it was mainly, as you pointed out, black folks getting locked up. And people say that's just not fair. What do you say to people who argue it was just not fair to punish people so much more harshly for selling essentially the same drug, particularly given that most of the people receiving those harsh punishments were black and Latino?
Reverend IKARD: Well, I don't look at is a black issue, a white issue, or a Latino issue. This drug is killing all, and the sad thing about it in the community in which I live it's like a black on black crime. When you have a nephew that is selling to his uncle, or his aunt, or his cousin, to me they are somewhat committing a murder because these people, once addicted to crack, if they're not rehabilitated, eventually it leads to death.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that, because the experts say it is really only about 38 hundred people affected by this retroactive change.
Reverend IKARD: Yes.
MARTIN: And that these people were going to come out anyway, number one, and number two, these were people who are considered to be non-violent. Does none of that sway you?
Reverend IKARD: No, actually, you know, it really doesn't because I'm looking at the fact - when you begin to release these people early, it sort of gives other criminals the OK. Well now I see the sentence is not as harsh as it was. So now if I get caught, my uncle got out early, so it's not as bad now as it was, so I'm going to continue to sell crack. Why get an education now and if I do do time, it's not going to be as long as it has for some.
MARTIN: Do other people in the community feel the way you do? Are they worried about these folks coming home earlier than anticipated?
Reverend IKARD: Some yes, because what we're trying to do in our community, we're trying to revitalize our community, and we feel strongly that one or two offenders coming back into the community early, especially those that are not prepared to come back, we feel like, OK, they come back two or three years early. And if they do not become gainfully employed and do not become a productive citizen, what are the chances of them reverting back to selling drugs or becoming a drug user? That's just going to be another person on the streets causing more problems of what we're trying to clean up in our neighborhood.
MARTIN: Wade Ikard is a minister and the coordinator for the Weed and Seed program in South Statesville, North Carolina. He joined us from his home in North Carolina. Reverend Ikard, I appreciate your talking to us, and will you keep us posted?
Reverend IKARD: I definitely will.
MARTIN: Thank you so much.
Reverend IKARD: Thank you.